On January 21st, the government of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) declared a 15-day state of emergency in response to safety concerns throughout the country, especially in Bangui. The capital city has now been taken by the Coalition of Patriots for Change rebel group currently occupying about two-thirds of the C.A.R. The state of emergency will allow armed forces in the C.A.R. to make arrests without going through prosecutors.
The C.A.R.’s internal conflict escalated at the end of December following the re-election of its current president, Faustin Archange Touadéra. Authorities within the country blame former president François Bozizé for instigating the new wave of violence after he was prohibited from running in the December election. Christian, anti-balaka rebel groups doubt the December election’s legitimacy and support Bozizé’s claim to power. However, the fighting is not new: it is a continuation of eight years of civil war.
Bozizé held office from 2003 to 2013, until predominantly Muslim Seleka rebel groups ousted him from the presidency. This overthrow ignited religious fighting between ex-Seleka groups and anti-balaka forces, beginning a cycle of violence which still ravages the C.A.R. today. The anti-balaka forces have targeted Muslims and Islamic places of worship throughout the country. However, international human rights agencies, including the United Nations, have accused both groups of “war crimes and crimes against humanity,” and are pleading for peace in the region.
Multiple peacekeeping operations and aid efforts have been created amidst the ongoing conflict. In 2015, the United Nations launched its Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in C.A.R. (M.I.N.U.S.C.A.), now considered “one of the largest and most expensive U.N. operations in the world” according to Africa News, in collaboration with France and the African Union. There are currently about 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the country, including reinforcements from Rwanda, Russia, and France, as well as South Sudanese peacekeepers deployed as an extra precaution before the most recent election.
Despite these numbers, the United Nations C.A.R. envoy Mankeur Ndiaye has warned that the country “is at serious risk of a security and peacebuilding setback.” The B.B.C. says that Ndiaye has requested at least 3,000 more peacekeepers, drones, “attack helicopters and special forces.” Ndiaye has also asked for an extension on the Rwandan military presence in the region, intended to last only three months. Large numbers of government soldiers have deserted defense efforts, as a result of “insufficient training and resources”; the C.A.R. military is supposedly trained by Russian and E.U. authorities.
The Central African Republic was already hit hard by COVID-19, but it is not the only country afflicted by the violence. The C.A.R.’s neighbors are also affected by this devastating humanitarian crisis. According to Al Jazeera, more than 60,000 refugees have fled the conflict within the past few weeks alone, escaping to nearby countries such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.). The D.R.C. has experienced the highest numbers, taking in around 50,000 individuals since December.
The situation does not appear to be improving. Although a peace agreement was signed in June of 2017, it has clearly not prevented continued bloodshed. The International Criminal Court put a 2013 C.A.R. rebel leader on trial on January 28th: a step in the right direction, but almost seven years too late. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has observed numerous war crimes within the country, including torture and unexplained disappearances. Global Conflict Tracker reports that the fighting has killed thousands and forced almost 600,000 people to flee their homes since 2013. Fran Equiza, UNICEF’s CAR representative, says that women and children are experiencing the worst effects of the crisis, which has now displaced over 100,000 people.
In addition to the civilian casualties, there have been scattered reports of peacekeeper deaths over the course of the eight-year conflict.
The violence in the C.A.R. is only continuing to intensify, ravaging the country, its neighbors, those who are providing peacekeepers, and international humanitarian groups alike. The international community must collaborate with internal and regional authorities to stop the brutality. Relying on reports from people on the ground, the United Nations should deploy more peacekeepers and materials, while the C.A.R.’s allies should increase training and infrastructure for domestic military groups.
There must also be safe havens and protections for the large numbers of refugees fleeing the C.A.R. This will not be possible without the help of nearby countries and global refugee organizations.
This conflict clearly cannot be solved from the outside. Collaboration with regional organizations, such as the African Union, is imperative if lives are to be saved.